Confessions of a Recovering Neoconservative

The realignment of the political Right has prompted a public confessional of sorts, a raw acknowledgment that millions of us were led astray by Republican leaders we trusted, we voted for, and we defended during times of war. We only have ourselves to blame, of course, because we did it with our eyes wide open. But the Trump era is forcing many Republicans to reexamine what we once believed and reassess what actually is true.

In a fiery speech earlier this month at the National Conservatism conference in Washington, D.C., Fox News host Tucker Carlson talked about purging his “mental attic” to dust off the ideas that he had accepted as legitimate over past few decades.

“The Trump election was so shocking . . . that it did cause some significant percentage of people to say ‘wait a second, if that can happen, what else is true?’” Carlson said. “Just look around . . . who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? A lot of the people we’ve been told are good guys are not. Some of them are the worst guys. I’ll let you figure out who.”

Carlson didn’t need to name names because the conservatives in the room, I assume, envisioned pretty much the same collection of bad guys—and they aren’t on the Left.

For the most part, the list would include Republican villains such as Bill Kristol, Carlson’s former boss at the now-defunct Weekly Standard, and a number of other conservative commentators still clinging to the mantras that afford them their sinecures; Bush family members and certain administration officials; former Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and the late John McCain; former Republican congressional leaders such as ex-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan; and an assortment of well-heeled donors.

They populate most of the Beltway clique of once-influential thought and political leaders who controlled the Republican Party for more than two decades and whose collective incompetence, arrogance, and intellectual torpor resulted in their ouster in the form of Donald Trump’s election on November 8, 2016.

In fact, Carlson’s Trump-inspired epiphany echoed my own internal thoughts during much of the conference—thoughts I’ve had consistently over the past three years—but in my head have been far more harsh than Carlson’s public musings. Others shared similar reflections about both the people and the policies they once were loyal to. As I’ve purged my own mental attic of alleged truisms and political heroes since November 2016, here is what I often think:

You idiot. How dumb could you be? How could you have been duped by these frauds for so long?

Like millions of Republicans, especially those of us who once considered ourselves to be neoconservatives before watching the public meltdown of our one-time heroes into a molten pool of pathetic and sniveling NeverTrump Republicans, the presidency of Donald Trump has forced me to reckon with my own political stupidity and gullibility. Not only was my faith placed in the hands of self-serving and fundamentally dishonest people, I now realize that in trusting them, I unwittingly defended misguided policies that have wreaked havoc on large swaths of the country.

When I first started out in politics in the early 1990s, a few years after I graduated from college, Kristol and his fellow neoconservative headmasters were my political idols. I was “squishy,” as Kristol once put it, on immigration and nodded my head in agreement with those who argued non-Americans would do the work that Americans wouldn’t. After all, who else would happily staff our restaurants and stock our grocery stores and fertilize our lawns while keeping the costs cheap? It’s a win-win for everyone!

Free trade opened up new markets for American goods around the world, there could be no downside. American companies owed us nothing, and if they decided to move jobs and resources and tax dollars to a more hospitable country, welp, that’s laissez-faire economics, folks! If you got hooked on drugs or stuck in a low-wage job or trapped in a decaying industrial town, that was your own damn fault. You should have been more ambitious, anyway.

Nation-building in the Middle East at the expense of American soldiers from the Midwest was the only way to defend our sovereignty and secure our future. Of course U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators in any country. Of course the war would end quickly. No, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney would never mislead us about weapons of mass destruction.

That, and more, was my political mindset for more than two decades. I defended broad policies bolstered by platitudes and endorsed by my “Conservative Betters” without taking a moment to consider the long-term consequences or measure their outcomes. Why quibble about the details when you have all of “The Smart People” on your side? I mean, Bill Kristol was on TV!

In the end, being a neoconservative meant having no skin in the game. You could push for war in other countries because it wasn’t your child who would be deployed. You could argue in favor of “free trade” because your company wasn’t relocating overseas. You could support unfettered immigration because foreigners weren’t taking your job and probably wouldn’t compete with your children when the time came. You could ignore the influx of illegal drugs or the shuttering of manufacturing plants or rising white illegitimacy rates because none of it was happening in your suburb or the tony enclave of your city.

It didn’t matter if none of it really worked in practice as long as it worked in theory.

Meanwhile, those policies that sounded so good in theory from my comfortable environs were hammering Middle America. Simmering rage about the consequences of illegal immigration went unnoticed. Drug abuse soared as illicit narcotics and prescription painkillers, unrestrained by government action or political attention, flooded blighted communities. Unfair trade agreements robbed farmers and steelworkers and small business owners of profit. Still, neoconservatives clung to their vaunted yet vague “principles” as they sneered and looked the other way.

And that’s how we got Trump, as they say.

Now, thanks to Trump’s ascendance, we know why neoconservatives ignored the plight of their less fortunate countrymen: They hold them in contempt. Neocon NeverTrumpers have ridiculed Trump supporters as unsophisticated, racist rubes incapable of independent thought who blindly following the lead of their Bad Orange Master. Kristol said in 2017 that white, working-class Americans were “decadent, lazy, [and] spoiled.” He even accused Carlson, his one-time protégé, of being a white nationalist.

As they pivot away from positions they once claimed to hold, vanquished neoconservatives offer nothing in the way of “conservative” alternatives to Trumpism, just the same stale mantras about free trade and virtuous illegal immigration and the “free market.” Those leaders who once insisted America wage any number of wars securing borders in foreign lands and sold to us as protecting the “national interest” now rage about the sinister roots of Trump-afflicted “nationalism” and complain about those who insist we secure our own borders.

I’m not the only recovering neoconservative with regrets. Norman Podhoretz, one of the original architects of neoconservatism, also has second thoughts about the last couple of decades. He has reconsidered his previous adherence to once defining tropes about conservatism, particularly those about trade and immigration.

“The idea that we’re living in a free trade paradise was itself wrong . . . there was no reason to latch onto it as a sacred dogma,” Podhoretz admitted in an April 2019 interview, “And that was true of immigration. I was always pro-immigration because I’m the child of immigrants. So I was very reluctant to join in Trump’s skepticism about the virtues of immigration. What has changed my mind about immigration now—even legal immigration—is that our culture has weakened to the point where it’s no longer attractive enough for people to want to assimilate to, and we don’t insist that they do assimilate.”

That is one reason why the current transformation of the Republican Party will outlive Donald Trump. Yes, the figureheads have changed, but so too have the policy priorities and the views of many rank-and-file Republicans. As we look around at the smoldering debris left behind by a “conservative” political class that has been inattentive—even hostile—to the basic well-being of so much of the American middle class which is and must be the heart and soul of American society and culture, we know that there is no turning back to the era of selective ignorance and deference to rarified political pedigree.

And the “bad guys” should never be allowed to regain a position of influence again.

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